Our brains are flooded with more than 11 million pieces of information at any moment, and we can only process about 40 of them. Because of this, our brain takes shortcuts. These shortcuts can be incredibly helpful, and they have a term for them in psychology – heuristics.
These shortcuts allow our brains to conserve energy and to process the constant barrage of information without being paralyzed. Our brains use past experiences to quickly form the most likely conclusion. For example, you see a tree with bright red shapes hanging from the branches Do you conclude those are cars, dogs, or dollars? Or do you quickly conclude that those red objects are apples? What about the leaves on that tree? When they flutter, do you assume the tree is about to take flight, or do you assume a light breeze is passing through the branches?
These shortcuts can be incredibly helpful to make sense of the massive amount of information we constantly must process, but they can also be detrimental, especially when working with others or leading teams.
When our brains take shortcuts with people, we are relying on unconscious biases to reach conclusions. Unconscious biases kick in automatically—before we even have a chance to deliberate. For example, the next time you meet someone, try to be aware of any judgments you make about them. Do you think they are a slob because they have a five-o-clock shadow? Do you think they are trustworthy because of their face? Do you think they are nice because of their smile? Do you think they are lazy because they are overweight? Do you think they will be less productive because they are older, or do you think they are wise because of their age?
These are your unconscious biases at work. They are jumping to conclusions for you so that your brain can focus on the important stuff, like shaking hands, saying hello, and standing upright and not being overwhelmed by the millions of data points appearing before you.
The danger of these unconscious biases becomes apparent when they dictate the way we engage with the world around us. They can be especially damaging in the workplace where they surface in hiring decisions, the delegation of tasks, and in the distribution of recognition—all things that directly impact engagement.
Watch out for these shortcuts that your brain is trying to help you with. Slow down and recognize your own unconscious biases. In doing so, you can identify the potential negative impact they have on your life, personally and professionally.